12/24/2002 1:00AM

Final game decides Stardust tourney

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LAS VEGAS - Last weekend's championship match of the Stardust Invitational came down to the last game. And, as with many big games, the action failed to match the anticipation.

Professional handicapper Mike Lee and national radio talk show host "Papa" Joe Chevalier each gave out seven NFL sides last Friday night at the Stardust race and sports book. The winner-take-all prize of $10,000 was on the line.

After Sunday's action, Chevalier was 4-3 with a best-bet winner on the Seahawks, while Lee was 4-2 and awaiting his best bet, the Buccaneers -4 1/2 vs. the Steelers on Monday night.

With a win, Lee would capture the title outright with a 5-2 record. However, since the best bet serves as a tiebreaker, a Bucs loss would give Chevalier his second title in four years (he also won this event in 1999).

Well, with the whole contest coming down to a single game, the Stardust got its money's worth in free air time. It was hyped more than any handicapping tournament in recent memory. Every local sports talk show that I listened to mentioned the Stardust scenario, and Chevalier talked about it non-stop on his nationally syndicated radio program on Monday afternoon.

And then the big game started. But, like with so many other crucial games, it was over minutes after kickoff.

The Steelers went right through the Buccaneers' defense in less than three minutes for a 7-0 lead. Then, on Tampa Bay's second play from scrimmage, quarterback Shaun King had a pass intercepted and returned for a touchdown. After a three-and-out series by the Bucs, the Steelers marched down for a field goal to make the score 17-0 before Chevalier was even off the air at 7 p.m. PST.

The Bucs only managed a touchdown with 1:14 to play to make the final 17-7 and officially give Chevalier the Stardust title.

Chevalier was a deserving champion. In his four appearances, he went 20-8 (71.4 percent) against the spread and a perfect 4-0 on his best bets. Even though Chevalier said he knows you have to play underdogs to win over the long haul, he used favorites in 26 of his 28 plays during the tournament, including all seven in the championship match.

"I have several handicapping principles, most of which I'm violating tonight," Chevalier said last Friday.

But his prevailing strategy last weekend was to use "teams that are in it vs. teams that are out of it." It worked with the Falcons vs. the Lions and Titans vs. the Jaguars, but it came up short with the Dolphins vs. Vikings and Saints vs. Bengals. He also won with the Packers vs. the Bills while losing with the Patriots vs. the Jets.

But, in the end, it was Chevalier's decision to use the smallest favorite on the board, the Seahawks -1 vs. the Rams - both teams won't be in the postseason - that was the deciding factor.

Fantastic contest finishes?

Contestants going by the names "I Walk a Beat" and "Ghost" are 52-28 and atop the leaderboard in the Las Vegas Hilton SuperContest. However, there are four players within two games of the lead and another four within three games heading into this weekend's final five picks. First prize is $168,600, and the co-leaders are the only ones with a chance to grab the $10,000 bonus for hitting 67 percent winners, though they would have to go 5-0 to reach that plateau.

In the Gambler's Challenge at Station Casinos, "RG Sports #II" (with a record of 50-30) and Roland Phillip (49-28-2) are tied for the lead with 50 points, and they're trying to hold off four other contestants that are within 1 1/2 games.

Selections of all the contenders and consensus plays are available in the respective sports books by Friday afternoon.

NFL betting trends

With the Steelers' win Monday night, favorites and dogs went 8-8 against the spread in week 16. The winning percentage for dogs continues to drop as they now have a season record 131-101 (56.5 percent) with six pushes.

Home dogs went 3-2 last weekend as the Vikings, Cardinals, and Bengals covered and the Cowboys and Jaguars got whipped. For the season, home dogs are still a very profitable 48-34 (58.5 percent) with two pushes. Despite their cover last week, the Bengals were 1-6 as home dogs this season. If you remove their games, the home dog record is 46-27 (63 percent). This week's home dogs are the Giants +2 vs. the Eagles, Browns +2 1/2 vs. the Falcons, Lions +3 1/2 vs. the Vikings, Texans +8 vs. the Titans, and Bears +7 1/2 vs. the Buccaneers. The Patriots could be another home dog. As of early Tuesday morning, their game vs. the Dolphins was at pick-em.

With the Dolphins, Chiefs, and Bucs all failing to cover last weekend, the Eagles now have the best spread record in the league at 10-5. The Rams are the worst at 3-12. The Rams and 49ers, who meet on Monday night, have both lost seven straight against the spread.

The Saints and Bengals - the two teams with the best record with the over - played an under game Sunday with the Bengals winning 20-13. The Saints are still 12-3 with the over while the Bengals are 10-4-1. The best under team is the Dolphins at 11-4. They play the team with the second-best under record - the Patriots at 10-5 - on Sunday. The total is 38.

After three straight weeks in which the over dominated, last weekend saw 11 games go under and only five go over. Inclement weather wasn't a contributing factor in most of the unders. Instead, the biggest reasons were strong defenses, inept offenses, or a combination of both.